More than 850 people have been convicted of crimes related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack, but a prosecutor told a federal judge in D.C. on Tuesday that no case was quite like the twisting saga of the graying man who appeared before him by Zoom for sentencing: James Ray Epps Sr.
Epps had been on the front lines of the mob as it pushed toward the Capitol, but the prosecutor said he was the only defendant known to have tried to de-escalate the violence at points and that he turned himself into the FBI on Jan. 8 of that year. He cooperated with authorities and the House committee investigating the attack.
Epps initially blamed antifa — a loose-knit group of far-left activists — for the Jan. 6 attack, but he himself became the subject of high-profile conspiracy theories by Tucker Carlson and others that he was an undercover government agent who had instigated the mayhem. Epps was forced to flee his home and now lives in a trailer in the woods in an undisclosed location.
Federal prosecutors initially decided not to charge him, but he was ultimately indicted and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disruptive conduct, an attempt to hold him accountable but also recognize his mitigating conduct and the backlash against him.
As U.S. Attorney Michael M. Gordon put it in court: “This is unquestionably a unique and complicated case.”
James E. Boasberg, chief judge for the U.S. District Court in D.C., referenced that unusual nature in ultimately sentencing Epps on Tuesday to probation, bringing the 62-year-old’s strange Jan. 6 legal odyssey to a close. He is from Arizona and has worked as a roofer.
Epps, who wore a pinstriped suit and tie, told Boasberg shortly before his sentence was handed down that he now knows the election was not stolen and that it was Donald Trump supporters like him who had carried out the attack. He expressed remorse for his actions and said the experience of being accused of false conspiracies by the “Trump cult and Fox News” had been searing. Epps is suing Fox News and Carlson for defamation, a lawsuit the network is challenging by saying that on-air hosts were expressing opinions, which are protected by the First Amendment.
Epps received death threats and found shell casings in his yard, and people inspired by the false allegations that he was a government agent booked the wedding venue he and his wife ran in Arizona so they could harangue him, his attorney said. The couple sold the venue and went into hiding.
“It was a life-changing reality,” Epps told the judge.
Epps spoke as a hearing for Trump in his Jan. 6 election subversion case was playing out nearby in D.C.
Gordon traced Epps’s involvement in Jan. 6 to the evening before the riot, when Epps was captured on a video shared on social media that showed him in a crowd at Black Lives Matter Plaza in D.C.
After some members of the crowd say they want to fight antifa and Black Lives Matter supporters, Epps urges restraint and tells them he is going to go peacefully inside the Capitol on Jan. 6 and that he would probably be arrested.
“He viewed this as a 1776 moment,” Gordon told the judge.
Members of the crowd accused Epps of being an agent provocateur, which later helped spur the conspiracy theories about him. Members of the crowd chanted, “Fed! Fed!” at him at one point.
Gordon also showed video in court of Epps urging Trump supporters to march to the Capitol during Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally the next day. Later, at the Capitol, video shows Epps near the vanguard of the mob as they push through one fence set up by police and then a second.
Epps ultimately made it near the steps of Capitol, where video showed him near a group of rioters pushing a massive Trump sign toward a line of police officers. Gordon said video of the action is not definitive about whether Epps helped push the sign, but he was among a group that moved toward the police line. Epps’s attorney said he was trapped in the crowd.
Gordon said that Epps never entered the Capitol and that he also made at least five attempts during the afternoon to tamp down the violence of the Jan. 6 crowd.
After the Capitol attack, right-wing news outlets and Carlson falsely accused Epps of working for the government and helping spark Jan. 6 violence. In one video, Epps is seen whispering to a Jan. 6 rioter shortly before the man attacks a police line. Epps has maintained he was telling the man to remain calm.
Gordon said in court that the only connection Epps had to the government was the four years he spent in the Marines.
Federal prosecutors had wanted Epps to serve a six-month sentence, while Edward Ungvarsky, Epps’s attorney, argued for probation. The judge ultimately decided against a jail sentence, saying Epps appeared contrite and had done admirable work in the community.
“You were hounded out of your home and hounded out of your town,” Boasberg told Epps. “You had to live like a fugitive because of the lies of others.”